Even though during the last few decades scientists have been rather optimistically talking in terms of ‘life extension’ and cures for many diseases including such dreaded diseases as cancer and AIDS( and now COVID -19, the most dreaded disease in human history) it is ironical and also sad that in our own age, particularly in some advanced countries, a very large number of youth are taking their own lives more frequently than even before in the past.
In the last 30 years or so, there has been a disturbing and dramatic increase in suicides of young people all over the world. It is now believed that unless society commits more of its time, energy and medical resources to this serious and widespread problem, many people in the prime of their youth would not benefit from the gains made by medical science leave alone, experience the joys and pleasures of a full rich life.
In America alone some 20000 young people kill themselves, and that about 200000 others make the ‘attempt’
It is estimated that in America alone( in respect of which statistics are readily available), every year, some 20000 young people kill themselves, and that about 200000 others make the ‘attempt’. The same situation exists in most of the other countries also. If we take suicides per hundred thousand, Hungary has the highest rank at 21, Finland at 16.5 and France at 14.6,
Greece ranks the lowest at 2.9, Mexico ranks second at 4.4, and Britain ranks third at 5: Constraints of space do not permit me to analyse the reasons for these scores.
Each of these stories is indeed a study in human suffering. Viewed together, the figures constitute a national tragedy. Now, however, that the advanced countries are awakening to the magnitude of the problem, the next task will be to go beyond mere concern and start formulating effective strategies to bring this strange mental ailment under control.
In the past little systematic research had not been carried out on the problem of suicide. People all over the world have been regarding suicide only as an individual family problem to be discussed in the privacy of one’s home, not a burden to be treated scientifically and shared by society as a whole. The attitude, however, is likely to change in the future in view of the interest being shown in this regard by many right-thinking people, particularly scientists.
The intense social pressures generated by this age of anxiety weigh on youth, aggravating the general turmoil and insecurity. Many young people silently endure the inhospitable atmosphere of discord-filled homes; they are abused either by their friends/ peers or by their quarrelling parents or meet with major setbacks at school or college or work( in the case of older youth) and run away from home, falling prey to easily accessible drugs and alcohol. Young men and women in the prime of youth resort to suicide because of a variety of reasons. Shakespeare made Hamlet say
” who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes.”
Indeed, the disruptive forces of society make an already unhappy youth a vulnerable and defenceless creature who is unsure of his future.
Moreover, the young people themselves watch in movies, youngsters committing suicide by hanging themselves, or taking an overdose of dangerous drugs or deliberately falling on the railway track in front of a moving train.
Taking a close look at such suicides, it would appear that a large number of them are the final results of psychiatric disorders, including depression and manic depressive disease. It is not unlikely that some kind of familial and perhaps genetic factor also plays an important role. It is believed that approximately 40 to 50 per cent of young people who kill themselves have a close family member who also had committed or had attempted suicide.
Scientists at Columbia University in the United States have been carrying out one of the most systematic studies on suicides ever undertaken. By carefully studying the lives of youth who had committed suicide and by reviewing the psychological and social factors involved, these scientists were able to uncover several individual problems that form the background of suicidal acts.
For example, they noticed that youth prone to impulsive acting-out behaviour (for a variety of reasons) face the highest risk of ‘completed’ suicide. Youth with a constant complaining attitude or irritable temperament and highly perfectionist personalities were also found to be at risk.
What then is the solution or the answer to this growing menace which is responsible for striking down many young people without even giving them a chance to enjoy the remaining years of their lives? Though the best means of preventing such suicides have still not been discovered, scientists feel that there are many steps we can take even now on the basis of our limited current knowledge.
We must look seriously and compassionately at each attempt. It must be recognised that anyone who has attempted suicide had been at substantially increased risk for actually committing suicide, especially during the preceding two years. Therefore, steps must be taken to monitor the person’s behaviour and movements, particularly during stressful situations.
Serious efforts must be made by law and order enforcement agencies as well as by social thinkers to curtail drug and alcohol abuse among youth, as these two items are commonly used by suicide victims. Enlightened education in schools and colleges and systematic parental guidance can be of great help in this regard.
Further, since dramatic media presentations of suicides can be potentially disastrous, anyone preparing such material should seek prior consultation with mental health experts. Pharmacists should not sell anti-depressants and tranquillisers to persons( particularly young people) who do not have a genuine prescription given by a licensed physician.
Mental disorders such as depression are frequent precursors of suicide, so detection and appropriate treatment of such illnesses sufficiently early may be very helpful as preventive measures. It is believed that such illnesses are amenable to treatment in 85 to 9.5 per cent of the cases.
There is an urgent need for teachers, employers, families and friends, in fact, all those who come in contact with the young people, to identify without hesitation at sufficiently early stage children in trouble. Young people who are isolated, or show less enjoyment of their activities, or have substantial difficulty in eating or sleeping and keep losing weight excessively would qualify automatically as possible candidates who need urgent attention, and early attempts to cure the condition.
Those who have the most frequent contact with young people, especially teachers and counsellors, have to be sensitive to the early signs of mental disturbance. They also need the skills to appraise the situation and raise the subject with a young person, and his family if that seems proper. Psychiatrists, preferably those who know the young person’s family background would be of immense help. Treatment may include sessions of counselling and pressure, prescription of drugs like tranquillisers and anti-depressants for a few days a week for a few months under strict medical supervision. A sympathetic psychiatrist would be able to identify the precise factor which is causing depression or anxiety. Here I would like to make a pertinent observation. Many physicians tend to make a colossal blunder in assuming that a mental patient has no serious medical condition in the sense that a heart attack or appendicitis or a gastrointestinal is. In actual fact, a mental patient suffers more. In his mind, there is a hell that physicians do not appreciate. When a mental patient approaches him for treatment, he pays little or no attention to his tale of woe and prescribes a minute dose of a mild tranquilliser and gets rid of him. Sometimes the physician also ridicules the patient in front of patients who have come for a physical ailment, causing untold harm to the mental patient in question. This is an act of mental cruelty that goes against the Hippocratic oath.
But perhaps, more important than all that has been said earlier is the realisation that our society needs an increase in support for research on youth who commit suicide and the behaviour disorders that precede it. Early identification and scientific analysis of the underlying factors will improve both our understanding of the problem and our ability to prevent it. For, ultimately, only such well-planned research can lead to the discovery of techniques to protect the mental health of disturbed young people who, if treated in time, may well prove to be an asset to any society or nation.